The 2019 season of summertime festivals is fast approaching with Glastonbury in June, Wireless Festival in July and the maiden Afro Nation Festival in August.

The greatest party that never happened: Fyre Festival 

The promotional video for the inaugural Fyre Festival dangled the prospect of an exotic festival on an idyllic island. Festival-goers could swap Indio, California for Great Exuma Island, Bahamas and party on yachts with supermodels, feed wild pigs and enjoy the sets of Major Lazer, Disclosure and Blink 182 before retiring to bed in their luxury villas. Fyre Festival was to take place over “two transformative weekends” in April and May of 2017.

Fyre Festival co-founders Billy McFarland and Jeffrey Atkins, professionally known as the rapper Ja Rule, sought to create an Instagrammable festival. Fyre Festival was intended to rival the Coachella Festival not in terms of scale but as the new festival experience of the social calendar. The “Coachella of the Caribbean” was to take place on the island once owned by the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar – or so people were led to believe.

Billy McFarland: maverick, con-artist or both?

Billy McFarland was the CEO and controlling principal of a number of business ventures; namely: Fyre Media Inc; Fyre Festival, LLC; and Magnises, Inc. While McFarland was hailed in some quarters as the next Elon Musk, he is currently serving a six-year jail sentence in Orange County, New York. McFarland plead guilty to making false statements to an FBI agent and committing wire and bank fraud in connection to the fraudulent misrepresentations he made to over 100 investors of the now infamous Fyre Festival and the NYC VIP Access scam. While on bail, McFarland generated $100,000 from offering VIP access to events such as Coachella 2018, the prestigious Met Gala and a meet-and-greet with Taylor Swift to Fyre Festival ticket purchasers.

The rise of social media influencers

The social media campaign announcing Fyre Festival garnered 5.1 million views on YouTube. It featured models such as Bella Hadid, Chanel Imam and Hailey Bieber (née Baldwin) and court documents allege that IMG Models were paid $1.2 million to provide models for the promotional video. Subpoenas of these celebrity influencers have been made as part of multiple class actions filed against the event organisers, marketing companies and PR firms for falsely advertising a festival of unparalleled luxury. These class actions have been brought on behalf of out-of-pocket festival-goers who purchased ticket packages ranging from $1,200 to $100,000…

Many will recall the glamourous social media posts of Bella Hadid, Elsa Hosk and the now-deleted Instagram post of Kendall Jenner endorsing Fyre Festival with the promotional code “KJONFYRE” for her followers to get discounted tickets for an after party with artists and celebrities. Kendall Jenner was reportedly paid $250,000 for her post tagging @fyfrefestival. In the aftermath of Fyre Festival, the US Federal Trade Commission wrote 90 letters to social media influencers and marketers to remind them that influencers need to disclose a material connection (i.e. a commercial relationship with brands) by using labels such as “Ad”, “Promotion”, and “Sponsored”. The US Federal Trade Commission is responsible for protecting consumers from deceptive practices and enforcing truth-in-advertising laws. The influencer market is the new frontier in advertising and the commercial intent of a social media post should be made clear. In the case of Fyre Festival, a misleading impression was given that the supermodels would make an appearance on Great Exuma Island in the same way they attend the Empire Polo Club for Coachella.

Behind  the intrigue of  burnt orange tiles being posted on Instagram and the proliferation of the hastag #fyrefestival was a logistical nightmare.  Preparations for the festival were beset by a series of challenges which were created and compounded by duplicity, fraudulent representations and recklessness. Luxury villas included in VIP ticket packages worth hundreds of thousands of American dollars in reality comprised of unfurnished and water-logged disaster relief tents that were surplus from Hurricane Matthew with mattresses most of which had been soaked in a tropical storm on the penultimate day of the festival.

There were countless opportunities for Fyre Festival to have been  postponed or even cancelled but the lack of festival insurance meant that McFarland would have been personally liable for repaying loans to investors.

Arguably, McFarland tapped into the zeitgeist of the social media generation to weaponise the power of celebrity for commercial gain, clout and possibly to ascend to the echelons of the celebrity elite. The red flags were always there if you look beyond the picturesque backdrop which served to mesmerise, captivate and distract the viewer from considering how an “immersive music festival” could actually take place on a remote island. The slick production of the promotional video focused on promoting the scenic appeal of the Great Exuma Island with its azure blue waters and pristine beaches juxtaposed with typical festival clips of the mainstage.

In the same way, Instagram showcases a selection of highlights that can invoke awe, comparison and jealousy. Fyre Festival invoked notions of grandeur, exclusivity and the opportunity to party like a rockstar with the young, rich and famous. This is the very lifestyle used by those who carefully curate their social media pages to give the impression that they are living their very best life even if this is a filtered, constructed and misleading reality.

Hilde Kwafo-Akoto is a trainee solicitor at Bristows